This story appeared in the May 2004 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Judge Harland Hale is bellied up to the bar of the Clarmont on a Thursday morning. A man sitting next to him seems to be seeking real estate advice, but Hale interrupts him to address a more urgent matter: "Got any smokes?" The guy doesn't, but has some in his car. While he's outside, Hale makes conversation with Jenny Strahler, the waitress working behind the bar, about collectors' items he bought the previous Saturday.
"Jenny, talk about a deal. Did you know that Franklin Mint went out of business?" Hale asks. Franklin Mint sold, among other things, die-cast models. Hale enumerates his bargains: "I bought two cars. I bought two knives. Unfortunately, they had chess sets, but they were all gone, and I didn't just want the pieces."
Strahler nods, smiles and keeps working. Having worked at the Clarmont for 21 years, she knows chatting with local judges, lawyers and politicos is part of the job. "Earlier," she says, gesturing toward the west end of the room at about 9:30 on a Friday morning, "there was a jury over here. They were sequestered." She then jerks her head toward the area behind her. "There's one table over here that's all judges and attorneys, and they just come and go."
That's the table at which you can usually find Hale. It's a round table one from the front and one to the right when you first step into the room. "It's kind of a fluid table," Hale says. "There's probably 30, 40 people" who sit there from time to time. "It's pretty much you just show up and pull up a chair. The table probably is designed to feed eight at the most. I've sat there when there's been 15 and 20 people sitting there-probably sitting in each other's lap. It's always fun. I always enjoy it."
Compared to most of the other folks you see in the restaurant, Hale is a newcomer to the Clarmont. He's only been coming since his former haunt, the Brewery District Emporium, closed in the late 1990s. "I get to see a lot of old friends that I ordinarily wouldn't get to see," he says. "I usually find out a lot about business and politics that otherwise I wouldn't be in touch with when you're sitting in chambers all day."
Although he's never seen anyone get upset, Hale says there's plenty of banter at the table. "It's no hidden secret that we-myself included-love to kinda kid around," he says. "And if one of us at the table is in the news, which is normally the case, we'll usually, in good faith, poke fun at the person."
Vic Goodman, an influential attorney and lobbyist, is another regular at the judges and attorneys table. Goodman says "Large Harland," as he calls him, is often the one who's the object of the fun-poking. "With Harland it's open season," Goodman says. "We razz each other. When Harland was there after he sentenced the graffiti guy, we were all over him for stopping artistic creativity. Nobody is safe. You have to have a thick skin. If you don't have a thick skin, you're in the wrong place." In fact, Hale is the subject of razzing even when he isn't at the table. On a Thursday morning when the judge is absent, Goodman and other table regulars make repeated reference to a running joke that Hale is required to pay for their meals.
Goodman's discussing religion, politics and other matters with a group that includes former State Sen. Gene Watts and attorney Rick Brunner. "Well, lookee here," says Brunner. "It's his honor." He gestures toward Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard Sheward, who's making his way to the table. In a few minutes, Goodman sees former Ohio House Democratic leader Bill Mallory wander in, flags him over to the table and invites him to sit down. Goodman introduces Mallory to Sheward, telling the judge, "This man voted for a pay raise for you."
Although Goodman insists their table is ideologically diverse and bipartisan, Democrat Yvette McGee Brown, a former domestic relations judge who now is president of Children's Hospital's child advocacy center, says she's never sat there. "That's pretty much a Republican table," McGee Brown says with a laugh. "I do go by and pay homage to them, though."
Over the past few decades, the Clarmont has established itself as a center of political and civic life in Columbus that is in many ways every bit as prominent as the Statehouse, the Courthouse and City Hall. "The Clarmont," says former Columbus Mayor Buck Rinehart, now an attorney in private practice, "if you're in any kind of a relationship business, it's one of the places to be. It's one of the places to meet. You got waitresses who have been there for a long time, and they know everybody. And you say, 'I'm waiting to meet Judge so-and-so or [Franklin County Prosecutor] Ron O'Brien––anybody.' And they say, 'Oh, yeah, I know him, I know him. I'll keep an eye out for him.' That gives you a club atmosphere without having to pay dues."
To look at it, the Clarmont isn't anything special. Punctuated by a red neon sign, it sits at 684 S. High St., between German Village to the east and the Brewery District to the west. It's just south of the Clarmont Hotel, which is no longer under the same ownership. Inside it's an old-fashioned kind of place. There's a coat room near the entranceway. A few proclamations from the state legislature celebrating the restaurant's 50th birthday hang in the lobby, and the dining room is decorated predominantly with paintings of flowers. It's the kind of place where the breakfast menu is printed on your paper place mat, and you can get a basket of breadsticks and saltine crackers.
Breakfast is as cheap as you want it to be. Belgian waffles are $4.50, a Western omelet is $6.25, eggs Benedict is $6.95 and the most expensive item on the menu, steak and eggs, will cost you $8.50. You can hike up your bill to double digits by asking for side orders, which range from $1.25 (pan-fried or hash brown potatoes) to $3.25 (strawberries or corned beef hash). But if you're willing to settle for something simple, two eggs with toast, it's just $2.95. Throw in coffee ($1.25) or juice ($1.95) and a tip and you're out of there for about six bucks.
And yet, look around, and you'll realize you're surrounded by the most prominent people in Columbus. On any given day, you might see Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery, local United Way president Janet Jackson, Columbus schools superintendent Gene Harris, City Councilman Rich Sensenbrenner and, especially if the legislature is in session, a host of state senators and representatives. "It's been that way," Rinehart says, "as far back as I can remember."
It's downright heresy even to suggest it. But, truth be told, Thom Coffman would close the Clarmont for breakfast if he could get away with it. He thinks it probably costs him more money than it makes. "It's kind of a who's-who," Coffman says. "That's the only reason I keep breakfast, because of the reputation. Most people who go someplace for breakfast don't think of it as a place to go for dinner."
Bill Bigelow, the Clarmont's previous owner, agrees to a point. "I don't know that it hurts the dinner business, but it certainly is not a moneymaker in and of itself," Bigelow says. "I would think that it would tend to help both the lunch and the dinner business in terms of bringing people in. But breakfast itself is not profitable."
Coffman-who also owns the Round Bar next door, but not the adjacent Clarmont Motor Inn, which is the property of Best Western-has owned the Clarmont since 1996. About 10 years ago, Coffman was right across Third Street from the Statehouse, running Mario's Internationale and the Galleria, which included both a tavern and a cafeteria. "That's where I got my political connections," Coffman says, because lawmakers and lobbyists could always be found in the Galleria.
"Yeah, that's true," Rinehart recalls. "That's when the speaker was Vern Riffe. He would hold court in there. If you wanted to talk to him, you'd go in the Galleria." But Riffe, who retired in 1995 and died in '97, wasn't enough to keep the business thriving.
"When City Center opened, it really drained the business out of the Galleria," says Coffman, referring to the opening of the downtown mall in 1989. He wanted to close the cafeteria and keep Mario's and the tavern open, but it wasn't an option. "It was either keep all three or close all three, so we closed all three." That was right around the time he was hired to run another restaurant Bigelow owned, Deibel's, which was in the space now occupied by Barcelona. "After 10 months, we changed the menu, got the food back to where it needed to be, but I hated it, hated the atmosphere," says Coffman.
So Bigelow named him the general manager of his other restaurant, the Clarmont. "I just told Bill that it wasn't working for me and he said, 'Why don't you just run the Clarmont?' " Three years later, Coffman bought the Clarmont from Bigelow. Coffman made some changes-he got rid of the big cigar case that used to be in the middle of the room, added new windows to lighten up the place, erected appealing glass around the bar, added new wall prints and closed the visible wait-staff service stations-to "make it more aesthetically pleasing." But it's still the same place.
"The people are the same, still have this same comfortable atmosphere," he says. "It's not a glitzy Cameron Mitchell-style restaurant, and it shouldn't be because that's not what the Clarmont is. Still has that '50s, '60s feel to it." Just as he could never stop serving breakfast, Coffman says he knows he could never truly alter the Clarmont's ambience, such as it is. "I don't want to be the one who let it fail after 56 years," Coffman says. "One thing I heard from regular customers-and this place has a lot of regulars-is, 'Thom, don't screw it up.' "
He hasn't yet, but that's not to say customers don't have suggestions. Rinehart, for example, thinks the place needs a little more light. "I can't tell you how many times people went out of there with the wrong coat," the former mayor says. "Especially in the wintertime when you've got all those people in there and it's hard to see. I keep telling Thom, 'You gotta put a bright light in there so that old people like me can see where they're going and don't take the wrong coat.' It's hard to start your car with someone else's keys."
For Jenny Strahler, some days are better than others. Even though she opens the restaurant each morning at 6, there are times she gets called in for extra duty at dinner when someone needs help. "There are drawbacks to knowing how to do a little bit of everything," she says. Like the time a few years back when she had to substitute for an absent cook and make breakfast. "I was in tears," she says, laughing. "Everyone was eating scrambled eggs, just scrambled eggs."
Strahler knows she's witnessed countless important conversations over the years, but swears she doesn't pay attention. "I don't listen," she says. "I'm not one to listen in on someone's conversations." While "That's not true of everyone here," she adds with a smile, "Most people are pretty good about it. They hear something, they don't talk about it. Especially the mornings, with all the attorneys and judges."
Why do all these folks come to the Clarmont? Strahler doesn't try to give a politic answer about the food or the atmosphere or the friendly service. She knows the Clarmont has what other downtown restaurants don't. "One thing that's really to our credit," she says, "is our parking lot. Everywhere else you go, there's no parking."
She's right about that. Parking is one of the first qualities patrons talk about when they list their favorite things about the Clarmont. "It's just a meeting place," says Goodman. "Why? Because A, the food is good, and B, there's no price for parking." Goodman's been eating Clarmont breakfasts for decades. "I go back to when Barry Zacks was still alive," he says. "I'm not sure Frank Kondos opened it for breakfast."
Kondos founded the restaurant in 1947 as a steakhouse. He was succeeded in 1972 by Zacks, who also owned the nearby Max & Erma's on Third Street at the time. "He was a very nice man," Strahler says. "He wasn't at the restaurant as hands-on as much as Thom is. But no one's really been as hands-on as Thom is, except maybe Frank Kondos." In 1986, five years before his death, Zacks sold the Clarmont to Bigelow.
"Barry was ill at the time," says Bigelow. "He had just been diagnosed with cancer. He was looking to sell to get out of the restaurant business, and I just happened to be along at the right time."
Bigelow was living in New York at the time, but decided to move back to Columbus after the death of his mother. "I was tired of New York, and I decided to move back to Columbus and take care of my grandmother, and when I arrived back here she told me I couldn't just sit around," he says. "Why didn't I get involved in a restaurant since I had had a saloon restaurant in New York City? And so I went out looking for a restaurant and ended up with the Clarmont."
The Clarmont was just the kind of place he was looking for. "It had an established clientele, many of them my age or older," says the 64-year-old Bigelow. The tradition of the Clarmont as a political and legal gathering place, he says, "was established probably 30 years ago, 40 years ago."
After a decade owning the Clarmont, Bigelow was ready to get out of the business. "After 10 years in the saloon restaurant business in New York and 10 years here, I was tired, very tired," he says. "I can't think of another individually owned fine dining restaurant that is open for breakfast and lunch and dinner seven days a week."
It's about 8:40 on a Tuesday morning, and Jay Neil is looking at his watch. Neil, director of a liberal get-out-the-vote organization called America Coming Together, is sitting in a booth along the north wall of the Clarmont. Waitress Jean Bryant comes over, offers him some coffee and asks if he's ready to order. Neil says he's waiting for someone. "Who are you meeting?" Bryant asks.
Neil says he's meeting Greg Haas, a Democratic political consultant. He adds, "He's always late."
Bryant returns and Neil decides to go ahead and order eggs, which he's gobbled up by 8:55. "Well," Bryant says while clearing his plate, "I think he forgot ya." Neil nods and goes up to the bar to pay his tab. Five minutes later, Haas walks in. "You just missed him," Bryant says. But Haas already caught Neil in the parking lot and convinced Neil to come back inside and watch him eat.
One thing just about everybody says about breakfast at the Clarmont is that it's a pleasant substitute for returning a bunch of phone calls. "You often take care of six return calls when you're there because you see people that you may have business with," says McGee Brown. She's been going to the Clarmont "probably 10 years," both for business and for pleasure. "It's just kind of a fun, warm place, and the service is quick. You can be in and out if you need to be in a half hour," she says. "What you mostly hear-and I'm probably the biggest culprit-you hear a lot of laughter. It's really such a social place."
When Jo Ann Davidson was the Ohio House speaker, she says she used to have a late-night dinner or drink with fellow lawmakers at the Clarmont and then meet them there again in the morning for breakfast. Today, as a lobbyist and political consultant, she still uses the Clarmont as an off-site office. "You do do a lot of business there," she says. "If you have people on your call list and you owe them a call or if you're looking to talk to them, you can do some tables and get a lot of work done. Or you can see what everybody else is doing, which is part of it, too."
"Informally, a lot of things get accomplished down there, absolutely," says Hale. "It's certainly one of the places where you can find out more about what's going on around Central Ohio in half an hour than otherwise you can all day."
Rinehart says public policy has always been made at the Clarmont. "A lot when I was mayor," he says, "a lot today." Legal strategies are mapped out, business deals are brokered and campaigns are planned. "Ideas get exchanged," Rinehart says. "Opportunities get exchanged, gossip gets exchanged."
Attorney Larry James says he started having Clarmont breakfasts sometime around 1990 when he was safety director in the Rinehart administration. While he doesn't give out specifics, he remembers making plans and deals over breakfasts back then and still does today. James orders the short stack of blueberry pancakes with bacon, a glass of milk and coffee. "It's like your own private club," he says. "That's home for us in the morning."
Ron Barnes, executive director of the Central Ohio Transit Authority, is more of an oatmeal and raisins man. He started coming to the Clarmont not long after he moved to Columbus six years ago. "I set up a program where I would meet with the chairman of the board each month, and so that turned out to have been a convenient location because he lived in German Village." Even after two chairmen who lived in the village, Jim Hopple and Charles Walker, moved on, Barnes kept meeting at the Clarmont. "It was so comfortable that we've continued the practice. Now whenever I'm doing a breakfast get-together meeting, that's the most convenient location."
Mike Curtin never went to the Clarmont back in his days as a Columbus Dispatch political reporter. "I'd never heard of being reimbursed for lunches at that time," he says. But during his years as the paper's editor and now as president of the Dispatch Printing Company, he's a regular. "I recall conversations with would-be mayors and would-be governors, people who wanted a convenient place close to downtown. I've had people feel me out about where the Dispatch would be on this or that initiative over breakfast or lunch at the Clarmont."
Guys like Haas feed on this atmosphere. "When I'm meeting with a Republican operative," Haas says, "it's always fun because you get these funny looks from the corner of the eye from people saying, 'What are you doing there?' "
While the Clarmont isn't a place for blatant political arguments, Haas says there is a degree of "passive-aggressive" behavior. He knows because he has engaged in it. "I remember one morning Lee Smith was having breakfast with Betty Montgomery," Haas recalls. Although Smith is a bipartisan lobbyist, Dave Leland, the Democratic Party chairman at the time, had recently talked to Haas about how helpful Smith had been to the party. So Haas decided to make Smith's breakfast with Montgomery, a Republican, a little uncomfortable: "I said, 'Hey, Lee, the chairman just told me what a good Democrat you are.' And he gave me a frown."
But what if you don't want folks to know with whom you're meeting, or what if you want to eat your breakfast in peace and be left alone? If that's the case, this isn't the restaurant for you. "A lot of people studiously avoid it because they don't want to be seen," Curtin says. "If somebody's concerned about who's watching whom, the last place you want to be seen is the Clarmont."
Dan Williamson is a senior writer for Columbus Monthly.